“Youth,” the second English language film from “The Great Beauty” director Paolo Sorrentino, takes on some of life’s great questions, life and death stuff painted with remorse, hope and, most importantly, a large helping of whimsy.
Set in a chic hotel in alpine Switzerland, retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and his childhood friend, film director Mick (Harvey Keitel) are plotting the next moves in their careers and lives.
Ballinger wants to disappear, fade away from public life and live quietly. He refuses repeated requests to perform his best known work at a command performance from Queen Elizabeth’s envoy (Alex Macqueen) and tells his assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz) who also happens to be his daughter, to turn down a French publisher who desperately wants him to write a memoir.
Mick is in a different place. After a string of flops he’s writing a new film to feature his greatest star, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). They’ve made a dozen films together but he sees the new movie, “Life’s Last Day,” as a comeback and their greatest collaboration.
“Youth” is a study of these two men. Other things happen of course; Lena’s husband leaves her for a pop star—in a po-mo twist real life singer Paloma Faith plays herself as the home wrecker—a movie star (Paul Dano) researches a new role at the hotel and Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) makes a memorable appearance, but the attention is focussed on Fred and Mick and their divergent paths to happiness.
Their journeys are bathed in Sorrentino’s impeccable images. The film is a lush tapestry of beautifully composed frames and optical delight. Ornate and elegant, the visuals are as complex as the film’s multilayered look at life’s rich pageant. Fred and Mick have lived life, and now in their final years try and assess the value of their experience. Sounds heavy but its not. It’s fleet footed, taking time only to luxuriate in the details of their lives and surroundings.
“Youth” is a mediation on life and age that succeeds by the director’s craft. Talking to a young colleague Mick demonstrates the effects of age by having her look at the distant mountains through a telescope. The mountains appear to be close. Then he flips the scope around and changes the perspective. “Being young makes everything close,” he says. “Being old makes everything far away.” Like the rest of the film it’s simple and subtle but is perfectly realized by Sorrentino’s mastery of blending story, ideas and images.